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Film Review: ‘Cesar Chavez’

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There haven’t been, to put it mildly, many films about America’s labor movement. Take away Salt of the Earth (1954) and Norma Rae (1979) and what are you left with? Cesar Chavez, then, offers to fill a cavernous void in the public’s knowledge about both union organizing and the history of the country’s mostly Latino agricultural workforce. Directed by the Mexican actor and film producer Diego Luna (Y Tu Mamá También, Elysium), the film follows Chavez (Michael Peña) from the time he parted company with the grassroots Community Service Organization (CSO) to the signing of union contracts with growers following a successful consumer boycott of table grapes.

Working with a screenplay by Keir Pearson, Luna wisely passes on a sweeping Gandhi-style treatment of Chavez’s entire life. This allows Luna and cinematographer Enrique Chediak to linger on the arid poetry of life in California’s Central Valley (played here by Sonora, Mexico): its parched roads, rundown homes and farm worker bunk houses.

It also permits the story to inventory the hydra-headed challenges faced by the fledgling United Farm Workers Association, the forerunner of the United Farm Workers union (UFW). Besides battling the rock-ribbed racism of Anglo growers, Chavez and his union co-founder, Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson), had to ameliorate deep grudges that existed between Mexican Americans and the Filipino field workers who already belonged to their own small union. Uniting these groups into a single farm worker union was essential to the UFW’s ultimate success. The UFW also had to confront political charges that it had been infiltrated by communists while at the same time Chavez fought to convince UFW members to adopt a pacifist strategy when picketing growers and the Mexican strikebreakers they imported.

At the heart of the film is a rather traditional domestic saga that outlines the enormous stress that Chavez’s work placed on his family life, especially upon his wife Helen (America Ferrera) and his increasingly estranged son Fernando (Eli Vargas). The story also acknowledges the pivotal role that Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Jack Holmes) played in moving the media to shine a sympathetic spotlight on the UFW.

Where the film falls short is in its rigid linearity: History is presented as a solemn procession towards inevitable victory. There is plenty of action but surprisingly little tension in this story, which often plays out as a beautifully filmed TV movie. Partly this is because of the miscasting of Peña, whose boyish face and voice border on the cherubic. Although roughly the same age as the man he plays, Peña lacks Chavez’s worn countenance, a mask burnished by the California sun and lined with worry.

The absence of gravity and enigma in Peña’s performance allows John Malkovich, as a grape grower named Bogdanovich, to nearly steal the movie during his relatively brief screen time. So light-heartedly menacing is Bogdanovich that at times you imagine the talented Tom Ripley has retired from murder and embezzlement to become the patrón of a Fresno vineyard.

In July 1966, Chavez wrote these words in Ramparts:

“There were about 30 of us in the house, young guys mostly. I was supposed to give them a signal – change my cigarette from my right hand to my left, and then we were going to give him a lot of hell.”

The intended target of this beatdown in a San Jose barrio was Fred Ross, the CSO organizer who would become Chavez’s mentor. As Chavez wrote, there was something in the agitator’s words that made him want to learn how to organize his own people, and so the two became friends and colleagues. It was 1950 – a time when Chavez truly was the kid that Michael Peña plays him as. Perhaps that’s where the next film on Chavez could focus – at the beginning, when Chavez was young and the movement he would lead had not yet been born.


Photo of Dolores Huerta (Rosario Dawson) and Cesar Chavez (Michael Peña): Copyright Pantelion Films 2014.

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